April 22, 2024

Senators show confidence in Johnson’s O’Hare rebuild plan

Source: Chicago Tribune


Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to tweak the massive, delayed rebuild of O’Hare International Airport got a major vote of confidence Monday from Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

Johnson wants to change the sequencing of construction on the long-awaited Global Terminal and two new satellite concourses. That idea had initially drawn pushback from the congressional leaders when first reported earlier this month. But Durbin and Duckworth rallied behind the plan Monday.

“We’re in a better place. There’s been an effort to increase the conversation,” Durbin said at a groundbreaking for a separate O’Hare redevelopment project. “I think we have a proposal that will reach our goal of 25% increased capacity.”

His remarks capped a sea change in his stance on Johnson’s proposal to prioritize the Global Terminal at the center of the $8.5 billion overhaul United Airlines and American Airlines agreed to in 2018.

When the Tribune broke that news earlier this month, Durbin offered a quick rebuke by publicly calling on U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to convene Johnson, Illinois’ congressional delegation and the airlines for a meeting.

Durbin declined to say Monday how discussions regarding Johnson’s proposal changed his mind, citing ongoing negotiations. “The conversation is moving in the right direction. We have the same shared goal,” he said.

Officials from United and American were at Monday’s event, but the airlines are still reviewing the mayor’s idea, and have not officially signed on to it.

Later, Duckworth added her own note of faith in the project and backed up her staunch belief that it must significantly raise O’Hare’s gate capacity. The airport’s long-running, multi-project rebuild will ultimately total $18 billion, she said.

“For us to not have a 25% increase in gates at the end of that $18 billion process would be fiscal malpractice,” she said. “We want O’Hare to stay at the top of the heap when it comes to the most quality airports around the world.”

The mayor’s proposal, which Duckworth also declined to discuss in specifics, is “not a rephasing,” she said. It offers a smarter approach to construction steps, she said. The “common sense” changes will allow for the project to remain affordable and occur faster, she added.

“The city did a really good job of rolling up its sleeves and coming up with a proposal that will continue to allow the airlines access to gates, but at the same time expand the additional gates that we need to be the airport of the future,” she said.

Earlier this month, Chief Operating Officer John Roberson told the Tribune the city wanted to change construction sequencing to “accelerate the completion of the Global Terminal.” Initially, the two satellite concourses were to be built first, which would have added gate space for airlines to use while Terminal 2 was rebuilt.

If the budget is maxed out building the first concourse and the Global Terminal, some warn the plans of a second satellite could be in danger, potentially jeopardizing the large capacity gains that concourse is expected to provide. A change in the order of construction had been sought by airlines, who wanted to ensure the new terminal wasn’t threatened by future budget issues after the two satellites were built.

The show of unity Monday came as Johnson, Durbin and Duckworth joined other leaders to announce yet another O’Hare project. Officials used gold shovels to toss dirt on the floor of Terminal 3, where a $300 million redevelopment will upgrade security screening, baggage claim and gate hold space. They lauded the effort as a product of President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law. The federal government awarded $90 million in two grants for the project.

That expensive effort pales in comparison to O’Hare’s broader, costly overhaul. As the sweeping project fell behind schedule over the last five years, costs have ballooned. The work was initially pegged at $8.5 billion, but the price tag has since risen to $12.1 billion.

As congressional leaders celebrated Johnson’s plan for bringing the remodel back within budget, the mayor did not give specifics when asked what changes have lowered cost projections. He praised collaboration from the airlines and federal elected officials.

“We’re having real substantive values around how we make sure our shared values are met,” Johnson said. “This is a global epicenter … everyone who is involved in this understands that.”

Should the project become too expensive, Duckworth hinted at an ace up the sleeve. Buttigieg has committed to looking into more federal financial support if needed, she said.

“But right now the project is on track. It’s back on budget,” she said. “We’re going to be able to get this world class, first-class airport back on track.”

By:  Jake Sheridan